Write Conflict that Counts

The night is cold. In the moonlight, the leafless branches appear like arthritic fingers, poised to drag aimless wanderers into the underworld. The four hobbits hide in the dirt, careful not to even breathe as the Ring Wraiths creep by. If they’re seen it’s all over—what are our heroes to do?

They remember the nearby Bucklebury Ferry, and if they can make it, they just might live to tell their tale. They race for the dock, but the Wraiths have noticed them, and they’re galloping towards our powerless heroes. Frodo, with the ring, has begun to lag. Ahead, his friends have already set the ferry adrift. They scream for him to hurry—a Wraith is hot on his tail. Frodo’s heart pounds as he tears down the dock with all his might. His legs ache. His chest burns. It’s too far. He’s too tired! There’s no way he’ll make it.

Then he leaps from the dock, lands safely, and they’re on to the next leg of their journey.

And you’re basically left to wonder: what was the point of any of that? The way our characters conveniently escape this ostensibly inescapable danger—doesn’t it almost seem like a neatly disguised *gasp*—deus ex machina?! Well, it may not quite fit that definition, but the tidy resolution of a conflict like this is only a half-step above that sin of all dramatic sins. And yet we see this all the time—even in cinematic classics! How is this possible? And how can we avoid it?

Writing drama often gets reduced to “add conflict.” Where’s the conflict?  Start with the conflict! Put conflict in every scene! We get it: conflict is important—paramount! But not all conflict was created equal, and without direction, this generalized rule can lead our plots towards shallow obstacles. So I’ve stopped asking, “How can I add conflict?” and started asking, “How can I give characters choices? And how can I give those choices consequences?”

This is the result:

Frodo races for the ferry—there’s no way he’ll make it! But his legs have found a momentary strength he never knew they had, and they catapult him safely onto the ferry.

He can relax.

But a funny feeling overtakes him—a lightness he didn’t have a moment ago. He checks his neck. The ring is gone…fallen off during his jump, and as he looks back towards the dock, he sees it sitting at the Wraith’s feet. He could almost puke as he watches the hooded figure pluck it up and disappear with it into the night.

Their escape comes at a price. The stakes have been raised. And now our heroes are forced to take action. But wait—there’s more!

Frodo is so distraught, he hardly notices the gasping, sputtering Sam beside him. Looking over, he notices Sam has been badly wounded in the escape—a sword straight through the belly. If they don’t get him to a doctor immediately, he’s surely dead.

We’ve exited  the scene, but we’re neck-deep in plot. Does Frodo go after the ring, or does he save his best friend? He can choose either (and his choice will reveal who he is as a character), but here’s the really important part: whichever path he takes, more consequences should follow.

You don’t have to focus so exclusively on choice and consequence, but it’s a method I’m comfortable relying on to turn gratuitous action into purposeful plot points—because conflict that doesn’t forward your plot or test your characters really isn’t drama at all. Compare the following scenes—both from Spielberg flicks:

1. Dashing archaeologist is afraid of snakes, so—naturally—he falls into a pit of snakes. He hesitates. Then he navigates past the snakes and on to the next lurking danger.

2. A man’s children have been captured by his pirate nemesis. To save them, he need only climb one-hundred feet of ratlines—but he has an immobilizing fear of heights. Try as he might, he chickens out. His children are subsequently brainwashed by his sworn enemy.

Which one involves choice? Which one has consequences? Which one compels you to dive headfirst into the story? Only the second. To which you scoff. “Raiders of the Lost Ark is beloved! Iconic! And far more successful than Hook ever was.” Well, yes. But was it more dramatic? It’s here that I think you’ve got to concede that movies are a collaborative art—from the set design to the stunt department. A desperate escape from a giant boulder is just as visually stunning and fun to watch as a Ring Wraith chasing a hobbit through a forest—particularly with a fantastic score and state-of-the-art VFX. But do you want to be the writer that relies on other departments to compensate for your sloppy beats? Or do you want to write the most tightly woven, compelling script you can? If it’s the latter, drama is your number one concern. Well, it’s my number one concern, anyway. And I’m of the belief that a conflict that can be safely removed without affecting the story is really just a waste of time, and a missed opportunity to test your characters. Yes—that includes giant boulders.

And I think you’ll agree. In today’s market, in which the writing is the best it’s ever been, does Raiders’ stunt-filled opening still compete? Are you more compelled to watch Indy narrowly outrun a boulder, only to narrowly escape a closing tomb, only to narrowly flee a jungle ambush…or to watch Walter White choose to let Jane die? For me, the choice is clear—though I fear Lawrence Kasdan will take vengeance upon me for saying so.

Then again, he may just write me a narrow escape out the window.

The “What-If” Phenomena

“What-Ifs” are big these days. Maybe they always were. What if we had lost WW2? (Man in the High Castle.) What if plummeting fertility rates threatened our society? (The Handmaid’s Tale.) What if 2% of the human population suddenly vanished. (The Leftovers.) One of my professor’s at UCLA lauded the What-If. “That’s your hook,” he’d say. No arguments here. I’m convinced. But I’ve decided there’s a right way and a wrong way to go about it. Here’s the issue: What-If’s are often about building worlds—but drama is about building characters.

Doing it Wrong

I had high hopes for last year’s The Lobster. From the trailers, it looked right up my alley. Here’s the hook: “What if singles were rounded up, and forced to find a partner, else they be turned into animals?” It’s almost Kaufman-esque with its magical absurdity. I loved the concept—but found the movie a total bore. Why? It spent more time building a bizarre world than it did giving me a character I actually wanted to follow around for an hour and a half. The stakes were high. The whimsy was spot on. But I never felt engaged with this world from the POV of a unique character who helped bring the concept to life. Why was I following this guy, and how did this world affect him in some meaningful way? Frankly, I just felt stuck on the ride, and I wasn’t impressed. Some will be quick to say, “But it was nominated for Best Original Screenplay!” Yup—and maybe if it had characters to care about with unique needs, it would have won.

Doing it Right

I’m a big fan of graphic novelist, Brian K. Vaughn, first stumbling upon his brilliance with his epic space opera, Saga. But before that gem, he wrote a What-If called Y: The Last Man. The premise? “What if every man alive suddenly died—except for one.”

Now your protagonist is clear—it’s the last man! And every protagonist must (absolutely, must!) have a dramatic need. What does our last man want? It’s absolutely brilliant. In a world where he is the only man left, his big quest is to reunite with his girlfriend, who is halfway across the world, and doesn’t even know he’s still alive.

And from this need, Vaughn creates a world that opposes our hero again, and again, and again.

Here’s another What-If, which focuses less on building a re-imagined world, but still creates the right character for the journey: What if the world were literally controlled by evil corporations? (“Dude…that’s not a what-if…that’s reality.” Again, no arguments here—but that’s really another post altogether.) Anyway! Sam Esmail’s Mr. Robot doesn’t work because he created a world based around the Evil Corp concept—it works because the protagonist is a socially anxious, schizo hacker, bent on fighting it.

I’ve been slacking on my homework, not having yet watched The Handmaid’s Tale, but I read the book, and I’m just guessing the show has a spot-on start, with the POV of a Handmaid. And The Leftovers? I just re-upped my HBO account yesterday to see how they’re tackling that one. Frankly, I’m not yet sold on their angle (Justin Theroux’s copper, What-his-name), but I’ll give it a chance, and save my praises or my boos for another post, another day.

Here’s your super surprise shocker-ending to keep you all going “ooooo!” I’m working my own What-If. Won’t disclose it here, but just know, it’s an awesome idea—or, it will be, once I find the right character to tell the story. Stay tuned.

Find Your Story

And stick to it. That’s the moral, and it’s what I’m trying to remind myself as I move forward on my new project. These things always sound easy, but without a Post-It on every surface of your abode, reminding you what your story’s heart is, you may find yourself with great plot and great characters, but they’re bound to fizzle out at some point. That’s what I think, anyway.

I like examining Breaking Bad. (By the way, my exhibits are almost always Breaking Bad. It just works, man.)

Breaking Bad sets you up with some pretty brilliant stakes: terminal cancer on one end, and the threat of prison on the other. Not a lot of wiggle room for good things to happen here. But how Vince Gilligan and his writers deal with the cancer part is what I find really interesting. Do they give Walt life scare after life scare with his diagnosis? Do they bring in his ex girlfriend whom he left at the altar to be his head doc? Accidentally give him an infected blood transfusion, or mix his chart up with someone else’s? Does Walt have an allergic reaction to the meds, which leaves him in a wheelchair? I admit, all of these things sound a bit “jump-the-sharky,” but they would definitely ratchet up the drama.

Nope. Instead, they hardly address the cancer at all. Sure, a few scenes in the early episodes, ’cause you can’t not talk about it, but the writers (being pros) knew what this show was—and more importantly, wasn’t—about.

It’s about reaching the breaking point. It’s about our ability to justify the unjustifiable. It’s about doing the wrong things for the right reasons. It’s about our need to be important. To be respected. To be good. It’s about every man being capable of absolute evil. It’s about “turning Mr. Chips into Scarface.” (Which was how Mr. G. always pitched it.) It’s not about overcoming cancer. Walt’s diagnosis in ep. 1 was a great catalyst for morphing him into Heisenberg, but that’s all it ever needed to be.

Now, if you were in Breaking Bad’s writer’s room, would you have intuitively left the cancer thread by the side of the road way back when? I know I wouldn’t have. Long story short: That, Mom, is is why I’ve got “Ignore the cancer” Post-Its papering my toilet tank.